It's been a while since I've tried one of these minor league scouting reports. The object of my curiosity this time was one Dallas Keuchel, who was drafted in the seventh round out of Arkansas in 2009 and has made it up to Double-A Corpus Christi.
He's been a prospect favorite because of his results, not his raw stuff. That is the reason he's been in the 20s for the past two seasons in Baseball America's prospect list for the Houston Astros. Looking over all the scouting reports and then comparing it to Keuchel's season, I wonder how true those scouting reports are. Let's look through some facts those scouting reports put forward and test whether they're true.
Fact 1: Keuchel does not have good fastball velocity and fringy stuff.
That's been the knock on the lefty since he was drafted. His velocity dropped in pro ball and has never really returned to the 89-90 level it was at in the College World Series. His breaking pitches were also doubted by most scouts in the past few seasons.
All this is borne out by his low strikeout rate, as it's fallen to 4.7 K/9 this season. However, two things stand out this season. First, Keuchel has an incredible ground ball rate, generating at least 10 ground balls in all but three of his starts this season. Not all of the ground balls were outs, but a large majority of his hits came off grounders. That speaks to how good his sinker is and why his pure velocity may not be as important.
Also, while his strikeout rate is low, almost all of the have been swinging strikeouts. In fact, Keuchel went eight starts before he got his first called strikeout and only has eight on the season. Twice, he's gotten more than one called strikeout in a game, and in those, he's struck out 13 in 14 innings.
My point is that maybe Keuchel has good enough stuff to strike out batters at a good clip, but is either choosing to induce ground balls or that he's not getting the calls on the corners to improve his K rate with called strikeouts.
Fact 2: Keuchel is a heady pitcher with good mound presence
I'm not going to try and disprove this one, but I have a pretty interesting way to show it's true. I've mentioned this before, but when I look at a pitcher like this, I'll chart every one of their starts, going batter-by-batter and filling out a scorecard. That helps me see where hits are going, how hard those hits are and get a feel for inning sequencing.
It's not perfect, since we're ultimately relying on the official scorer's judgements on fly balls and line drives, but if you're aware of that limitation going in, there is useful information to mine. For instance, I'd say a majority of the hits Keuchel gave up went to the opposite field.
That's not just right-handers, but lefties as well. Both types of batters have trouble turning on his pitches. If we accept that Keuchel's pitches aren't as good as Jordan Lyles, the likely explanation for this is that Keuchel knows to thrive on the outside of the plate. He knows how to pitch well enough to cross up batters and make sure they can't turn on his pitches.
That also seems to shoot holes in the theory that his fastball isn't good enough to play up at higher levels. If Keuchel can keep Double-A hitters from turning on his slower fastball, he can probably do it at Triple-A, too.
Fact 3: Keuchel has excellent control
In only three of his 13 starts has Keuchel walked more than two batters. His BB/9 rate is sitting at 2.3,which is right around where it's been for the past few seasons. He's also had just one hit batsman all season.
Taking this further, Keuchel only has given up 72 hits in 83 2/3 innings. We know he's not striking people out, so what does that mean? Maybe Keuchel is avoiding those hits because he has the control to pound that lower outside corner of the plate. It's that spot which made the Braves pitchers famous, but it takes quite a bit of control to pull off throwing there consistently.
Going further, the control necessary to thrive in that corner of the plate also would account for most of his hits going to the opposite field. That's a pretty good indication that we can justify Keuchel's control freak reputation both on a macro and a micro level.
Fact 4: Keuchel has trouble against left-handers
This isn't something I've seen in many scouting reports, but it is a puzzling problem. Why should Keuchel struggle against what should be the easier batter for him to face?
First off, Keuchel just doesn't see many lefties. There were a few starts early in the season where Keuchel saw three or more lefties in the same lineup, but lately, he's lucky to see two. Only one time this season has he seen two left-handers back to back in a lineup.
Add into that two bad games against left-handers, where he gave up a couple home runs and hits in about half the at-bats he saw, and Keuchel should have a more normalized split. However, the other explanation ties into what we saw above. If Keuchel thrives on hitting that outside corner against right-handers, when he's throwing against lefties, maybe he doesn't feel as comfortable throwing to the opposite outside corner. That would also explain why lefties have more success against him in the power department.
Fact 5: Keuchel's ceiling is a back-of-the-rotation starter
Any player who can't strike out batters at a good clip will be labeled as a back-of-the-rotation guy. But, I'd like to put forward the theory that Keuchel may have an upside like Tom Glavine. Both were finesse lefties without good fastball control.
Glavine was a workhorse who had good control but bad strikeout rates. He also had good ground ball rates and was able to limit the effect of home runs and fly balls. Keuchel has similar facility with his home run rate and a high percentage of his fly balls end up as infield flies. He even seems to have a better ground ball potential than Glavine, which means he can possibly have a lower strikeout rate than Glavine.
Of course, comparing Keuchel to a Hall of Famer is a fool's errand. There is such a small percentage of a chance that Keuchel will turn out to be like Glavine, it's ridiculous to hope for it. But, there is at least a chance that he could become a solid starter for Houston in the future.